Following several decades studying the health risks and consequences for people who live and work within a mile of the former naval shipyard at Hunters Point, Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai’s findings are staggering in their consistency: Locals are dangerously overloaded with toxic levels of heavy metals in their systems, a result of simply breathing. The appearance of the coronavirus further complicates the lives of those living in the 94124 zip code.
“In addition to carrying a toxic body burden, it doesn’t surprise me to find that residents of the hilltop are consistently nutritionally deficient in iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc, the elements you need for immune health,” said Sumchai, who’s established a biomonitoring clinic on Third Street to serve the immediate neighborhood. “And then there is the overlap with air pollution.”
In a district well-known for airborne toxins, the longstanding byproducts of heavy industry like shipbuilding, Dr. Sumchai saw cause to begin screening people with health issues, in coordination with their primary caregivers. What she’s found are toxic levels of radioactive material in the body, revealed through a simple urinalysis.
“It’s getting to where we can look at someone’s urine and tell they are from the Bayview,” said Sumchai. “The toxic burden is the same within the community, whether among white women, Chinese American males or African American women. The community is united by this cruel irony.”
“Every person tested has some of the ‘contaminants of concern’ listed by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] for the shipyard Superfund site in our bodies,” according to Mary Ratcliff, co-founder of the Bay View Newspaper. Sumchai often publishes her research in the Bay View, whose publishers Mary and Willie Ratcliff (previously featured in this column) suffer from illnesses complicated by exposure to toxins like uranium, thallium, cesium and strontium.
“This community has been decimated,” said Kevyn Lutton, a Bayview resident since the ‘80s. Lutton has survived her own health crises and carries the same toxic load as Ratcliff. “My health is wrecked,” said Lutton. “If we could sue the Navy, I’d be down with that.”
Dr. Sumchai grew up in nearby Sunnydale and was educated at University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University. She was working as a physician’s specialist with the San Francisco Department of Public Health when a confluence of events drew her further toward the links between community health and the natural environment.
“I was asked to found a children’s health clinic, directly across the street from where I grew up,” she said. Shortly after establishing the Hip Hop to Health Clinic in 1991, her dad, a career longshoreman, died prematurely.
“In investigating his death, looking at the medical charts and X-rays, I discovered he suffered from interstitial lung disease and asbestosis,” she said. A class action lawsuit was brought, settled, and benefitted several dock working families.
As the decade ended, Sumchai was working with the Palo Alto VA in an ongoing project of Veterans Administration hospitals to expand its registries of people exposed to toxins, like Agent Orange.
“A registry serves as a way for generational surveillance that follows kids and grandkids, searching for damage to DNA,” Sumchai explained.
Listening to the oral testimonies of people who survived exposure made its impression on her. “It had an enormous impact on me…the first time I interviewed an atomic veteran who had been summoned on deck and exposed to the radioactive megaton Operation Crossroads blasts in the South Pacific and survived it, it was devastating,” she said. “Hearing the stories again and again became the backdrop to getting involved in environmental health and justice issues in the community where I grew up.”
Sumchai has remained in the fight as a medical professional assigned to community task forces and as a citizen. She worked to close the controversial PG&E power plant and has been biomonitoring since 2009 alongside other doctors and scientists surveying the area, including children.
“We’ve seen dangerous elevations in schools surrounding the shipyard. We’re looking at lead and radium levels,” she said.
The Radiological Defense Laboratories occupied what’s known as the Hunters Point Shipyard from 1946-1969. Decontaminating ships used in atomic weapons testing and studying the effects of nuclear contamination, the work done at the shipyard also contributed to unleashing further contaminants. By 1989, the area was designated for cleanup by the EPA.
Efforts are made by residents, environmentalists and indigenous Ohlone people to restore the land to its natural essence, noting construction further releases toxins into the already heavily burdened air, but have not taken hold. When the parcel of land spontaneously combusted in 2000, it was subsequently landfilled, a practice Sumchai likens to applying a Band-Aid on an abscess.
“These people need a system,” said Sumchai: “A community toxic registry that would designate who is eligible for recovery, job reassignment, and funds for relocation. We want generational surveillance for people with nuclear fission products in the urine.”
As of 2019, it was revealed the clean-up efforts were boondoggled (as reported by this paper and others), and yet somehow, development plans continue, despite the experience of elders like Ratcliff and Lutton and Sumchai’s data which indicate a clear presence of health-altering toxins. Not incidentally, several hundred artists maintain studios at the shipyard site.
The reality is there are plans to build houses there, west of the gantry crane that was used to build missiles,” said Sumchai. “It’s ludicrous to build on a parcel of land that sits adjacent to radioactive material and to think that children will play there. People of conviction need to stand up to the shipyard development plan.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.